WASHINGTON — Uncle Sam's consumer watchdog is poised to make it easier next week for shoppers to investigate product safety, despite a Kansas congressman's effort to muzzle it.
U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo, a Republican freshman from Wichita, hoped to block the Consumer Product Safety Commission from launching a new online database March 11 that will allow the public to view product safety complaints.
"The federal government is going to get involved in running a database, which I am conceptually not opposed to, but want to ensure that the material it puts on it is helpful," he said.
His amendment, which the House passed last month as part of its budget bill, would put the project on hold through September, the end of the current fiscal year, to give Congress a chance to make changes that both he and the business community would prefer.
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For example, they want the database to accept only complaints from the actual consumer — or, in the case of a child, a parent — who experienced the harm from the product. As it stands, consumer groups and lawyers will also be allowed to submit product complaints.
For the database to face a delay, the Democratic-controlled Senate would have to include Pompeo's amendment in whatever budget plan it adopts. But in the high-stakes negotiations to avoid a government shutdown, the database is not likely to become part of the debate.
"There are groups trying to scare away consumers from this website, when this is a victory for consumers and they need to come use this site," said Steve Wolfson, a spokesman for the product safety commission.
From hairdryers to child car seats, the commission has jurisdiction over about 15,000 products generally used in the home. It does not oversee food, medicine, cosmetics, cars, tires or firearms.
The $3 million database was part of a consumer product safety bill that actually sailed through Congress in 2008 and was considered to be a milestone by consumer advocates. Former President George W. Bush signed it into law.
Its focus is solely on product safety.
The agency's ability to publicize information has long been limited, consumer advocates said. While various websites rate consumer products and post online comments, recall notices have been the product safety commission's only avenue to inform consumers about safety concerns.
Consumers must file a Freedom of Information Act request, an often lengthy process to obtain public records, if they want to investigate product safety complaints. But manufacturers can object to the release of information.
"It has the effect of keeping a lot of information secret so consumers end up being in the dark and end up using products that there are known problems with," said Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety and senior counsel for the Consumer Federation of America.
To file a complaint under the new system, consumers will be required to identify themselves, provide details of the incident involving the product and certify the veracity of their claims. They could face penalties if they lie.
Their identities will not appear in the database, but consumers will have the option of allowing their names to be disclosed to manufacturers.
Manufacturers complain that once they learn of a complaint, they have a very limited window — 10 days — to object.
"We are concerned that information that is 'materially inaccurate' will be included in the database even when we can provide evidence of the inaccuracy," said Rosario Palmieri, vice president of regulatory policy for the National Association of Manufacturers, an industry trade group. "All we're asking of them is that they complete a review before they publish it. Otherwise you're going to have junk all through this database."
Wolfson dismissed the concern. Since late January when the commission began a trial launch, he said the database has received only four claims of inaccuracies out of 1,000 reports from consumers.
With the economy struggling, Pompeo argued that the database would hurt business by raising costs and subject manufacturers to frivolous complaints. He also called it a "playground" for defense lawyers.